21 • Courthouse Chess
Once he got on the highway, Will called Nina back. She had only been checking in, letting him know they’d found a house to rent that would have room for all the kids and let them keep the dogs. He felt relief that he would not be asked to approve a hotel room with a pool and fine dining at the local Country Kitchen for the next three months. Justin was sleeping at the shop most nights, she said, only coming home “when he wanted some.” She laughed when she said it, but not in a way that sounded like she was amused.
Will wanted to ask why she stayed, but he didn’t. He knew why and didn’t want to put on her the humiliation of saying it out loud or creating a story he would never believe. He agreed to stop back next week and see how the contractors were coming along Their conversation ended abruptly when Will drove into the hills, notorious for their poor cell coverage.
He reached to turn on the stereo, selecting the first disk in the changer, a Yiruma piano collection. The irony of being soothed by the very music Mad Dog would mock him for was not lost on him. He turned up the volume and imagined returning to the office. In his fantasy, Mad Dog would growl, “What the hell did you put that motion alarm out for?”
And Will would answer. “No reason, really.”
An hour north of Langford, Will pulled to the shoulder and opened the file. He dialed the phone.
“Clay County Sheriff’s office. Dispatch.” It sounded like a woman’s voice.
“Good afternoon. This is Will Phillips. I’m handling a claim for Western Insurance for an MVA that happened outside Longville Friday night. Wondering if the crash report is finished yet and if I can stop and pick it up?”
Will looked at his notes. “Wilkins. Mary Wilkins.”
“Oh, yeah. That was an awful one. Two dead. Mary Wilkins was my piano teacher when I was a little girl.”
“Oh, I hadn’t seen her in 20 years. It’s not like we were close. Anyway, Deputy Martin has that one.” Keys clacked in the background as the dispatcher looked up the case. “Yep. The report is ready. You can stop at the courthouse and get it. Fee is $4.00. Cash only.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Yep, ” she said. “You betcha.”
The accident happened east of Longville. He would stop in town first and get the report so he’d have the deputy’s description of the crash. He pulled Barbara from the glove box and plugged her in, programming the GPS to find the courthouse before he got back on the highway.
“Drive to highlighted route, ” she said.
“Barbara, sweetheart, I’m on the shoulder. That is the highlighted route. I think I can manage this part.”
Will drove past the Rolphs County courthouse and found a parking space at the curb a half block away. He dug a handful of change from the center console and dropped two quarters in the meter. “Half hour should do it, ” he said, patting the meter on the head. He stood with his face tipped to the sun, twisting at the waist to stretch his back from the drive.
Inside the courthouse, he winced at what his tranquil world on the remote Dakota prairie had become. An armed security guard greeted him with a nod motioning to the conveyor to run his briefcase through the scanner. The hum of the belt, turning all day in its perpetual loop was the only sound in the vast marbled chamber of the vestibule. Odds were good the belt had carried nothing in the last hour.
“What do you have in the bag?” asked the officer, his voice cracking like a pubescent boy, which, with his pimply cheeks and thin blond flattop, he could easily have been.
“Files, camera, recorder. A few tools, ” Will answered.
“Can’t take the camera in. What sort of tools?”
“Tire gauge. Screwdriver. Pocket knife.”
“God. A pocket knife? What are you thinking? You can’t bring that kind of stuff in here.”
“Well, I’m not thinking at all, apparently. Look, I just need to pick up a crash report.” He held out his business card between two fingers. The young man took it, looked indifferently at both sides and handed it back. “How ‘bout I just leave the bag here with you?”
“No sir!” Will jumped at the voice that barked from behind a black partition at the end of the scanner, half expecting a Rottweiler baring its teeth. Instead, another officer, a squat woman with black hair slicked back close to her scalp stepped out.
“You cannot leave your belongings here.” She pressed her closed fist into the open palm of her other hand in front of her chest. Her biceps flexed as she rotated her hand back and forth, pulling the crease of her starched black sleeve flat across the bulge. Will involuntarily took a step backwards. “Could have explosives and such, and then what would we have? The case stays with you.”
“Right.” Will forced a smile and swallowed. “Look, today’s not the best day for me to become a threat to national security. Let’s say I just take the bag back to my truck.”
The boy guard folded his arms across his chest and the woman put her hands on her hips. Both glared at Will. He held the briefcase in front of his chest and backed toward the door.
“Damn, ” he said as he jogged down the stone steps. “I wonder what she did to get those pipes.”
At his truck, he pulled the Wilkins file and left the bag on the seat. He dropped another quarter in the meter to make up for the time lost to his imposition of a severe threat to the security of Langford.
When he walked back in the door, it was as though he’d never been there before. The skinny guard pointed to the conveyor without speaking. Will set the file on the black mat and watched it rattle along toward the scanner.
“What’s in the file?” the guard asked, frowning as he forced his voice lower.
“In the file? Geez. Eight pages. Two staples. One paper clip, ” Will smiled. “Sir.”
The file disappeared behind the flaps and the other guard ordered him through the metal detector. Will noticed her nametag. Phyllis Edwards. The machine beeped as soon as he reached the threshold.
“Step out, ” she ordered. “Take off your jacket.”
Will complied, slipped off his jacket and laid it on the conveyor. He stepped back into the machine and set off the alarm again.
“Shit, ” he muttered, hoping she didn’t hear him.
“Step over here please, sir.” She pointed to a pair of yellow shoe prints painted on the floor. “Extend your arms.”
Will aligned his work boots into the yellow shapes, put out his arms and leaned his head back, staring at the copper dome three stories up, debating mentally whether his position felt more crucifix or centerfold. When he felt Officer Edwall’s wand against the inside of his leg, he decided centerfold.
His leg twitched; he clenched his jaw.
“Just be still, Sir. I thought you left your implements outside.”
“I thought so too, ” Will said. “Sorry for the hassle.”
She ran the wand across his chest and along his arms, then down his front. The unit beeped just below his navel. She moved the wand back and forth, eliciting the incriminating beep each time she passed over his fly.
“I assure you, ” he said softly. “There is nothing in there.”
The woman looked up at Will, spread-eagle in the yellow footprints and held the beeping wand in front of his midsection.
“Belt buckle, ” she said. Will met her stare. “You should have taken that off. Give it to me and walk through once more.”
He pulled his belt loose and stepped back into scanner, which finally stood silent in seeming acknowledgement of his lack of mettle.
Officer Edwards picked up the file from the conveyor. “Three staples, by the way.” She patted Will on the arm with the file. “Now where is it you need to go?”
“Records, ” Will said, buckling his belt.
“Up one flight and to the left.”
“Well, this has been very … special, ” he said. “Thank you.”
The corner of Phyllis Edward’s lip curved ever so slightly and she tipped her head, almost imperceptibly. Will walked away and started up the winding staircase to the second floor. “Don’t cause any trouble while you’re up there.”
The Public Records Office was a wide open layout of a dozen or so desks adorned with family photographs, flower vases, stuffed animals and candy jars. All but two, whose monitors were dark, were staffed by women of various ages, from the 20-something pregnant brunette in the corner by the window to the wispy 60-something, silver hair pulled up in a ponytail wearing yoga pants and looking as though her next stop was the gym to train for her half marathon. Three women stood at their workstations nearest the long counter separating their space from Will’s, discussing a new craft project one had discovered on Pinterest.
Will looked down the counter to the end of the room. Every few feet, an overhead sign designated a particular class of record that could be secured. Nearest him was the line for birth and death certificates, followed by marriage records. Further down, court records, real estate transfers and so on. He didn’t see a station for motor vehicles so he walked down to the court records line and approached the counter. He smiled to himself that with such a well organized floor plan, designed to manage substantial traffic, he was still the only patron in the room.
A woman two desks down looked up at him, then at the COURT RECORDS sign above his head. She went back to work at her computer screen. The remaining women continued their activity, oblivious to his arrival.
A letter-sized notice was taped to the counter, typed in all caps in Comic Sans font:
A red arrow drawn with a Sharpie pen indicated a silver call bell to the top left of the paper.
He looked toward the woman two desks down, hoping to catch her eye. She continued typing. He shifted a step to his right, thinking to insert himself in her line of sight. She turned to the other side of her desk and rummaged in the bottom drawer.
Don’t make me ring the bell, Lady. He stared at the back of her head, willing her to turn. She did not.
Will held his hand over the bell, looking at her once more, hoping. She was motionless now, still hunched over the drawer as though daring him. He tapped the plunger once, lightly, with his index finger, then quickly put his fingertips to the side of the bell to silence the reverberation.
The room went silent. Typing and conversation stopped midsentence and every head turned to look at Will standing alone, stupidly, under the COURT RECORDS sign at the counter. The woman two desks down shut the drawer and spun her chair. She stood and walked to the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked, as the rest of the room resumed its earlier activity. She smiled in the way a woman can only do when her hair is pulled too tight back into its bun.
“Um, yes, ” Will said, placing his hands on the counter. “I am looking for a crash report.”
The woman sighed, then pointed to the sign over Will’s head. “You’re in the Court Records line.” She motioned to her right with her thumb. “You need Public Safety.”
“Oh, right. Sorry about that.” The woman turned and walked back to her desk. “You can’t help me?”
“You’re in the wrong line.” She sat down.
Will looked at the sign to his left and back to the woman at her desk. He walked a few steps to his left and stood silently under the PUBLIC SAFETY sign.
The women in the office continued with their activity, and after a few moments Will had learned no less than seven things he could do to repurpose an old pair of jeans. There was an identical notice at this line, only the tape at the corners of the paper had been outlined in black ink by another patron forced to wait there. He wondered if the doodler had stood in the right line to begin with. He studied the bell, alternating looks to the woman at the desk, now with her back to him.
“Don’t make me ring the bell again.” This time he said it aloud, though no more than a whisper. A woman at the first desk looked up. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Oh, sorry. I was just hoping not to have to ring the bell again. You’re all sitting right here, after all. Can you help me?” Will ran a hand through his hair and shifted his weight.
“Oh, sure. I’ll get someone.” She turned. “Barbara, someone’s at the Public Safety line.”
Barbara? Will thought. Figures.
The woman two desks down got up and walked to the counter. “Wait, ” Will said. He pointed at the court records line. “Why couldn’t you help me when we were over there?”
“I did help you. I sent you to the correct line.” She shook her head at him as if to say that even a small child could understand the simplicity of her bureaucratic operation. She reached under the counter and pulled out a packet of forms. “Fill it out completely and bring it back. Fee is four dollars.”
Will took a pen from his pocket and began to fill out the request form.
“Sir, you can’t stand there and complete the form. You’ll be in the way. Take a seat by the window please and get back in line when you’re finished.”
Will looked around. There was still no one else anywhere in the room waiting for service.
“Ma’am, ” he said.
Barbara the courthouse worker pointed sharply to the chair against the wall. “Have a seat by the window, Sir.”
Will squinted at the woman, then picked up the file and papers and sat down. She walked back to her desk.
He sat in the gray upholstered office chair with his head resting against the wall for two full minutes before he leaned forward, balancing the file folder on his knee as a flimsy writing support while he completed eight pages of extraneous information Barbara would neither need nor care about just so he could obtain the report. He wondered what sort of life winds itself up in this sort of maze, imposing rigid structures indiscriminately in contexts where they served to preserve order and others where they created meaningless chaos. Could this Barbara distinguish the two? Or was she fully able but unwilling, gaining something that felt like living while she siphoned the same sensation from another for no reason but that she could?
As he turned to page 5, he imagined what it might be like for her to loosen her hair, pulling against her face as tightly as she pulled against others. Would she feel a wave of freedom or would she feel as though she were coming apart, like her whole being might fall out the back of her head if she relinquished this one bit of control.
Will finished the form and put his pen back in his shirt pocket. He braced himself and stepped back up to the counter, rustling the papers to attract her attention. Barbara did not look up. The woman at the desk next to her did. Will motioned toward Barbara, but the woman shook her head and pointed at the bell. She shrugged.
He stood quietly for a moment, then reached for the bell. He held a finger on the side to muffle the sound, then tapped the plunger. Metal clacked against metal and Barbara looked up, scowling at his subversion. The woman who shrugged smirked at Will, then busied herself with paperwork at her desk. Barbara pushed back her chair and walked to the counter.
“Can I help you, Sir?”
Will slid the forms across to her. “I think these are complete.”
She flipped through the pages and tapped them on the counter to order the stack.
Will pulled a ten from his wallet.
“I don’t make change.”
“Excuse me, ” Will asked.
“I don’t make change. You should pay in ones.”
“I don’t have anything smaller.”
“Then you can pay ten, or you can come back when you have correct change.”
“Do you take debit cards?” Will tried.
“Yes. A twenty dollar minimum.”
“And you don’t give change.”
His meter was about to run out. “Two women are dead. I guess I’ll pay the ten to find out what happened to them.”
Barbara blinked, then snatched the ten from Will’s fingers. “It’ll be about 15 minutes. You can have a seat –“
“By the window. Yes, I know.”
Will sat down to wait. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. He began to think of all the others who had been sat down by Barbara in the same chair, resting their heads against the same spot on the same faded brown houndstooth wallpaper. He eased his head slightly forward, off of the wall, and held it steady, still looking relaxed to anyone who cared to notice but keeping clear of the space where someone else rested his head. It felt important that Barbara not see his agitation at her hoops, even as he twisted and turned to get through them.
His neck muscles tensed as he held his head still. He began to tap his hands on his knees in time with the background music sifting out of the speakers in the ceiling. He opened his eyes when he recognized a Muzak version of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, ” just in time to see Barbara return to her desk.
She was back. Even so, Will didn’t move. He would wait her out, fake-relaxing in the uncomfortable chair with his head not against the wall, tapping his hands to Bureaucratic Barbara’s brainwashing beat as an act of solidarity with every other man she’d tried to enervate with her bell and refusal to offer change. He would sit and wait without flinching, without checking his watch, without looking in her direction.
Barbara, apparently, could sense a good challenge. She sat down and began typing at her computer. Will convinced himself from the rhythm of the keys that she was not typing real words, just clicking aimlessly to make herself appear busy and make him wait. Didn’t matter. He would wait. Mary Wilkins wasn’t going anywhere today anyway. When his right shoulder began to twitch from his motionless position, Will began to count the suspended ceiling panels in the large office. He marked each by pressing a finger against his knee. He’d counted twenty-four across and was on his third time through his ten fingers for the length of the room when Barbara cleared her throat. He sat upright.
“Mr., umm, Phillips, is it? I have your report here.” She set the papers on the counter and turned to walk away. She stopped and looked back with a sigh. “Oh, and course we’re so interested in how we’re doing so please rate my service with our brief survey online.” She rolled her eyes and walked back to her desk without another word.
Will let out a laugh, which he quickly diverted into a cough when Barbara glared at him. He stood and picked up the report. “Thank you so much. You fine ladies have a wonderful rest of the day. And you, too, Barbara.”
He left the office, flipping through the pages as he walked. Four-lane highway, Wilkins was eastbound in a LeSabre, crossed the line into the path of a semi going westbound. Struck head-on. Both left the road. Wilkins rolled. She and her passenger were dead at the scene. No injury to the trucker. One witness.
Mary Wilkins and her passenger were in their late 70s. Right about the same as Pearl Jenkins, a thought Will decided right then not to entertain again.
(to be continued)